Energy Justice During Crises

Fighting for Power During the COVID and Climate Emergencies

The COVID-19 crisis has spotlighted the chronic injustices in our energy system. The Center for Biological Diversity’s Energy Justice Program is committed to building a better energy future by challenging the fossil fuel-powered, corporate utility status quo while advancing clean and renewable energy solutions to address the triple threats of COVID, climate and racism.

A Lack of State Protections Leaves Most of U.S. Vulnerable to Shutoffs

Millions of families have either had their power shut off or are at risk, during climate-induced heat waves, wildfires and hurricanes, because they can’t afford their electricity. Since the pandemic began, 32 states and Washington, D.C. have enacted emergency orders temporarily halting shutoffs, but most of these have now expired. This has created an inequitable patchwork of threats across the country. To ensure no family falls through the cracks, Congress must pass utility debt relief and long-term solutions that enable a nationwide moratorium on utility shutoffs during national emergencies.

Key Findings (as of Jan. 3, 2022):

  • Only two states — New Jersey and Virginia — and Washington, D.C., have orders in place to prevent power shutoffs. Households in all other states could have their power shut off for nonpayment.
  • California and New York had some of the strongest state orders. New York’s state order protects everyone, not just customers of investor-owned utilities. Both states' orders lasted for an extended period of time, waive late fees, and provide payment-assistance programs.
  • Millions of families risk having their power shut off. In North Carolina an estimated 2.5 million people — or 1 in 3 households — are at risk of disconnection due to inability to pay.
  • More than 1 million household electricity shutoffs have occurred in 17 states since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Florida Power and Light reported more than 255,000 disconnects since July 2020. Georgia Power reported disconnects equivalent to nearly 8% of its customers.
  • Congress has failed to pass a nationwide moratorium, despite widespread public support. A nationwide shutoff moratorium was included in the House COVID relief bill and the HEROES Act, supported by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sens. Jeff Merkley and Sherrod Brown, but it was not included in the final relief bill passed in December 2020. Some financial support for rent assistance, which can extend to utility assistance, was included.

Read our past issue briefs tracking the shutoff crisis since COVID began:

The above data builds off the work of Energy and Policy Institute, which has led the charge on tracking states and utilities that have committed to suspending disconnections.

Energy Justice Is Climate Justice Is Racial Justice

Read about how our short-term fight against energy shutoffs feeds into our greater mission to reform the energy sector for climate, energy and social and racial justice. Check out our pieces with the German foundation Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, in The Hill and in Jacobin.

Milestones in the Nationwide Fight Against Utility Shutoffs and Long-Term Power Shifts

  • The Center helped shine a light on the impending tsunami of disconnections from rising natural gas prices. Despite many states having winter moratoria, these protections require customers to seek out payment plans through their utilities, and only provide a short reprieve for households struggling to afford rising electricity prices.
  • National movement on the growing utility debt crisis is an important step forward, though still far from the long-term solutions needed to secure access to lifesaving utilities and an equitable energy system for all households.
    • The American Rescue Plan invested $4.5 billion in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP); gave $21.5 billion for emergency rental assistance (ERA) to help households pay past-due utility bills; and expanded Child Tax Credit payments, which families can use to pay for utilities.
    • The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Build Back Better Act each invested $3.5 billion into the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and expanded funding for utility-payment assistance programs.
    • President Biden also issued an executive order calling on utilities to use their resources to prevent shutoffs over the winter.
  • The NoShutOffs coalition worked with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) to introduce the landmark Maintaining Access to Essential Services Act, which would provide $40 billion to help cancel household utility debt for electricity, water, and broadband and implement a moratorium on disconnections.
  • In a testament to the work of the NoShutOffs coalition, we influenced President Biden’s American Jobs Plan to spotlight infrastructure improvements in power, water and broadband as his second-highest priority.
  • In October 2020 the NoShutOffs Coalition supported Sen. Brown’s vital letter to utilities demanding they provide data on disconnections.
  • In September 2020 the NoShutOffs Coalition worked with labor unions to elevate the urgent need for people’s relief in the COVID crisis and demand that Congress halt its delays.
  • In August 2020 the Center and climate-justice allies filed a petition with the Tennessee Valley Authority demanding a shutoff moratorium, relief funding and public hearings to usher in a clean energy transition. The TVA offered some financial relief shortly thereafter.
  • In June and July 2020, the NoShutOffs Coalition, partnering with the Poor People’s Campaign and The Real News Network, worked with leading Senate champions and people threatened by utility shutoffs to urge the Senate to pass COVID relief.
  • In May 2020 the House passed the HEROES Act, including the nationwide moratorium on shutoffs. Sens. Merkley and Brown introduced sister legislation to enact a nationwide moratorium in the Senate. Read coverage from the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.  
  • The Movement for Black Lives has demanded the same moratorium on utility shutoffs. Our work continues in solidarity to protect Black lives and achieve energy justice.
  • In March 2020 the Center spearheaded an emergency letter from 600 groups to state governments, utility regulators and rural cooperatives demanding a stop to power shutoffs. In response to public outcry, 15 senators wrote a letter to Senate leaders demanding nationwide relief.
Banner photo by Tau Zero/Flickr.